One of my long-time obsessions has been with chairmaker Chester Cornett (1913-1981), a traditional Eastern Kentucky chairmaker who moved to Cincinnati later in life and turned to making mind-bending chairs.
Trained by his family in green chairmaking, Cornett made hundreds of chairs and other pieces of furniture during a time in the 20th century when the world was turning to manufactured goods. After serving in World War II, Cornett moved to the Cincinnati area and found clients who allowed his imagination go wild.
Using traditional methods, Cornett began making rockers that had octagonal seats and eight legs. Chairs where every piece looked like a wiggling snake. An outrageous carved chair for President Richard Nixon. A woven basket-like rocker intended for President John Kennedy (who was assassinated before it could be delivered). And an unlikely rocker with bookshelves on the sides.
For many years, the only source of information I had on Cornett was the excellent book “Craftsman of the Cumberlands” by Michael Owen Jones. The only demerit to the book: the muddy photos printed on uncoated paper.
Now there’s a recent book you can download (for free) “Chester Cornett: Beyond the Narrow Sky” (Morehead State University) that is filled with gorgeous color photos of Cornett’s work, spanning his early chairs and reaching into his more artistic works. It’s a short book and definitely worth a read.
And if you want to read even more, check out this great article on Cornett from Cincinnati Magazine.
I hope to get out to Morehead’s Kentucky Folk Art Center to examine some of Cornett’s chairs in person. And down to Lexington, Ky., where the University of Kentucky has some of his pieces in its collection.
This will be a strange return to where I began – my first woodworking classes were at the University of Kentucky in 1993 – investigating where I might go next.
— Christopher Schwarz
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